Adding O's starter would be relief, too Bullpen worn down without strong No. 5

October 18, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles' decision to pursue another starting pitcher as their off-season priority is welcomed within their clubhouse. Even while players dressed after Wednesday's elimination from the American League Championship Series, an absence of another starting pitcher was cited as contributing to a worn bullpen.

Pitching coach Ray Miller saw wear in September and referred to it after the bullpen took four one-run losses to the Cleveland Indians.

By acquiring another proven starter, the club would bump Jimmy Key into a No. 4 role and Scott Kamieniecki into the fifth starter's spot. It also would save the bullpen from an innings load that seemed to crush it in the season's final weeks.

"I just wish we could have come up with one fifth starter," Miller said. "Kamieniecki did an awesome job. He probably should have won 15, 16 games. He did an awesome job. But one more starter would probably have taken more of the load off the bullpen. It's not so much that the bullpen can't handle it that day, but we never had a bona fide fifth starter all year. Almost on a consistent basis you end up using up your bullpen every fifth day."

The Orioles' bullpen ended the season with the most saves (59) and the fewest blown saves (10) in the major leagues. The club lost only four times when leading after the seventh inning. Yet setup man Armando Benitez became the ALCS poster boy for disaster. He suffered two losses and allowed the winning run to score in a third. Benitez had allowed runs in only one of his past 14 regular-season appearances.

Almost infallible during the season, closer Randy Myers was handed a 4-0 lead in Game 5 and didn't escape until the tying run was on second base.

General manager Pat Gillick cites a grueling travel schedule flecked with disruptive two-game series as partly responsible. However, Gillick went along with manager Davey Johnson's decision to carry only 10 pitchers into the postseason. After Johnson maintained any team needing 11 pitchers in the postseason could not win, the Indians' 11th pitcher, Brian Anderson, won the clinching Game 6 after contributing 3 1/3 innings in Cleveland's Game 4 win.

"We just got beat," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "They made a mistake. Sometimes it gets asked, 'Why did you win?' Well, why not? There is no answer. It's just the way it is. Those guys just didn't get it done.

"Are they tired? No. That's just human nature. They just didn't get it done."

Myers chose to spread the blame. "You win as a team and you lose as a team. [In Game 6] we shut them down for 10 innings. Our hitters didn't score for 11."

Johnson and Miller pushed hard for the club to acquire an additional starting pitcher. Gillick briefly considered Ken Hill of the Texas Rangers, but the Anaheim Angels got him first.

An 11th-hour attempt was made to acquire Curt Schilling from Philadelphia, but Phillies general manager Lee Thomas considered the Orioles' list of prospects unappealing. A move for Schilling also was complicated by having to renegotiate his contract, which probably would have meant paying him more than the $6.85 million per year awarded organizational product Mike Mussina in April.

Gillick maintains he will first plumb a thin free-agent market, which offers Darryl Kile, Bobby Witt, Mark Langston, Omar Olivares, Wilson Alvarez and Tom Candiotti, among others. Andy Benes holds an option whether to return next season to the St. Louis Cardinals.

All of the alternatives look better than those who mishandled the role this season.

Shawn Boskie began the season as fifth starter but lost the job after only two starts, the second coming 11 days after the first.

Johnson handed the assignment to Rocky Coppinger, a 10-game winner as a rookie in 1996 but a ticking time bomb this year. After beginning the season on the disabled list, Coppinger returned out of shape, sparred with Johnson, then had his mechanics disintegrate as he tried to protect an injured right shoulder. He lasted four starts before returning to the disabled list and eventually required surgery on his rotator cuff and right elbow. The club is not counting on him for next season.

Perhaps the season's most ruinous experiment was allowing 21-year-old rookie right-hander Mike Johnson to pick up for Coppinger. A Rule 5 draftee whom the club needed to keep on its major-league roster or else offer back to the Toronto Blue Jays, Johnson collapsed under the strain. In five starts, Johnson was 0-1 with a 15.26 ERA and barely averaged three innings per appearance. He crashed in Detroit on July 4. Unable to protect a 5-0 lead, Johnson left the mound in tears after three innings. Four weeks later, the Canadian was traded to the Montreal Expos.

Boskie returned to the rotation after the All-Star break but eventually broke down with elbow problems. He averaged fewer than five innings in his nine starts.

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